The Heat Is Online

Officials put N.Korean Famine Toll at 220,000

The Boston Globe By Associated Press, May 11, 1999

KOMUSAN, North Korea - The government has released an official death toll from four years of famine, admitting that hundreds of thousands of people have died of lack of food.

An official with the state Food Damage Rehabilitation Committee issued figures over the weekend showing a 37 percent increase in deaths between 1995 and 1998, which would mean about 220,000 people.

The official, Jon In Chan, gave the statistic to representatives of US, Australian and European aid groups who were touring North Korea to assess the famine and the World Food Program's distribution of food.

A US congressional delegation estimated last year that 2 million North Koreans have died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses during the famine. South Korean intelligence officials say North Korea's population has fallen from 25 million to 22 million. But Jon said his government still says these figures are too high.

The northeastern town of Komusan, 30 miles from the Chinese border, is in one of the hardest-hit regions. A visit to its regional hospital showed that about 50 percent of its patients were suffering from malnutrition.

Floods, drought and other natural disasters have devastated North Korea's collective agriculture since 1995. The economy was already crippled by the loss of crucial Soviet bloc trading partners.

Millions of people have been forced to survive by eating grass, corn stalks or whatever they can forage, the organization said.

With factories closed by chronic fuel shortages, North Korean cities are filled with workers struggling to survive through May and June, the leanest months before the year's first harvest.

© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.